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THE ART AND SCIENCE
of Good Baking
Bread baking has somehow taken on a mysterious quality, making it seem an intimidating act for many people. The secret to making good bread is that there is no secret. Let your imagination help you break any rules you imagine exist to daunt you.
The simple pleasure of savoring homemade fresh bread reminds us of how wonderful the basic integrity of premium-quality ingredients is. Of all the cooking processes, baking bread is regarded with greatest love by its practitioners as well as with the greatest anxiety by the uninitiated. Successful baking combines the elements of a balanced recipe, proper equipment, and good ingredients with skilled hands and a dash of imagination.
After decades of teaching baking bread, I have noticed how seriously home bakers take their skills. They are eager to give their breads a personal touch and expand their skills, yet need to be innovative and playful at the same time. I wanted to create a sourcebook for serious home bakers that would, in addition, be a good place for occasional holiday bakers who are in the process of slowly building their technical expertise to find a recipe as well. I wanted to present a text that is readable, yet infused with my own passion for baking.
In a way, I have returned to my roots here. These are truly my best recipes culled from my earliest to my most recent bread books: from good old-fashioned white breads, the mainstay of the American diet, to time-saving food processor doughs; information on sour starters; popular pizza and flatbreads, the easiest breads to make; the best homemade croissants; and a guide for adapting recipes to the bread machine for the connoisseur who doesn't want to get flour on his counter.
Also in this book the baker will find extravagant celebration breads; lots of flavorful, healthful daily loaves; savory main-dish breads; and breakfast rolls. There are lots of American-style breads, baked in the familiar rectangular-loaf shape and tending to be a bit sweeter and richer than their free-form, crusty European ancestors. There are many best-of-the-best quick breads, very much like cakes in that they demand precise amounts of liquid, leavening, flour, fat, and flavorings. Yet they offer something modern bakers value: ease of preparation in a short period of time.
You'll also find the imaginative use of whole grains, cereals, and flours in many of these loaves, contributing to the new flavors, aromas, and textures modern bakers crave. At the same time all the recipes reflect a natural way to provide your diet with more dietary fiber, a key element in health. Baking your own bread is an easy avenue toward a healthy, well-balanced diet.
My repertoire has always included as many classic yeasted breads solidly based in traditional technique, no matter how exotic or humble the ingredients. Each recipe in this book is designed to stimulate a renewed interest in the art of baking. Do you think that making yeast bread is too time consuming or too difficult? Do such baker's terms as proofing, fermenting, sponge, and second rise seem like a foreign language? This book can answer your questions. Detailed instructions are given for mixing and kneading by hand, by heavy-duty electric mixer, with a food processor, and with a bread machine.
There are no trick recipes or bewildering complicated techniques in this book. There are, on the other hand, lots of little tips, things often omitted precisely because they are so simple. Detailed information also includes comprehensive mixing and baking techniques, notes detailing dough makeup and assembly, as well as helpful information on ingredients. I care as much about the understanding that goes into the bread making craft as the disciplined performance necessary to get a loaf in and out of the oven. A good baker doesn't need to master a great many recipes to be proficient; one good unpretentious, yet well-executed white bread recipe is the basis for everything from wholesome loaves to dinner rolls, hamburger and hot dog buns, and sweet breads.
I want you, as a reader, to let go of the feeling that you have to bake. You can also enjoy reading or browsing in this book, then head out to your favorite bakery or market for an appetizing bread, muffin, biscuit, croissant, or flatbread to satisfy your urge. Small artisanal bakeries and even some larger scale commercial firms produce breads that are as nutritious and delicious as any homemade loaf. It defeats the purpose to bake under pressure or with a feeling of impending doom. But to enjoy on the spot your own baby brioche hot from the oven, a perfect biscuit, crusty country loaf, or a spice-scented breakfast bread or coffee cake, you must bake yourself.
So often I have been asked how I learned to bake. I really started baking in my late teens for my boyfriend, Steve; he encouraged me by happily eating absolutely everything I baked. Baking for someone you love is the core of a home baker's impetus; a sometimes difficult task is turned into a nourishing labor of love when the care you put into it is appreciated. But it was the repetitive baking daily for seven years in a small restaurant that taught me my trade; that is how I built my confidence as a baker. I went from being unable to control a large mass of dough on the work table and wondering what to do with a dough that did not rise in time to be baked for lunch to being very confident with a repertoire of two dozen loaves of my own invention. I was able to develop my skills directly from the experience of baking the same recipe repeatedly over the years, some well over a thousand times.
In response to requests, I began teaching workshops out of the bakery at night. Later, and for the next thirteen years, I taught at local cooking schools. This was an excellent testing ground for finding the best recipes and techniques through the feedback of hundreds of students.
Writing and sharing these recipes was a natural evolution of a skill that was bounded only by my own interest. Some master bakers practice secretkeeping with their recipes and methods, while other professionals are willing to share theirs--the failures, the successes, the on-going internal processes that are an integral part of baking bread. I was fortunate to learn baking from Barbara Hiken, my first real teacher, who taught me the value of sharing a recipe. She believed that if a person was interested enough to ask, it was an honor to share it. Every baker infuses his work with his own individuality; no one can steal your art from you. The loaves you bake will always be a direct reflection of your personal skill.
One winter when I was unemployed, I took out my copies of the first edition of the Tassajara Bread Book and A World of Bread by Dolores Casella, published in 1966, and started baking loaves and rolls on page one straight on through to the end. I became secure with the six basic steps in constructing every yeast dough: the mixing, kneading, rising, scaling (dividing the portions of dough), shaping, the second rising, and baking. Without realizing it, I became aware of the variables. I paid attention to the weather, the temperature of the flour, even the conditions in my kitchen. It was through this repetition that I began to understand the craft of bread baking.
I had learned how to make croissants at Gayle's, a popular bakery in Capitola, California. There the construction of the croissant was divided into three separate tasks: first, the mixing, working the butter package, and the rolling in; second, the cutting and shaping; and third, the period of rest followed by baking off. Each of these tasks was executed by different people working in different areas of the bakery. Using that experience as a springboard, I tested eight different recipes over a month. I still have the research notes detailing everything from manipulating the dough with crash kneading to balancing liquid/flour ratios in recipes as diverse as Julia Child's, Narsai David's, Bernard Clayton's, and Cuisine magazine's. I felt like an explorer: I understood nothing; I wasn't even sure I was on the right track; I just baked.
As my skill and interest in bread baking grew, I began to find and collect images of bread baking in history and travel books, classical painting, photography, and literature to share in my classes. I searched out the works of photographers like the New York-based Michael Geiger, whose stunning overhead shots of loaves for glossy magazines are remarkable in their sophisticated simplicity.
During my travels, I took the time to study the local breads, loaves baked in thin birch bread pans, which would give a unique scent after baking, or a pretty fluted mold. A baker in Oaxaca offered me her soft giant loaves straight out of a centuries-old wood-fire oven. French bakers still make the crustiest loaves I have ever seen, often so rustic looking they were like an oversized field stone. Bakeries in Britain still sell pan loaves embossed with a trademark like Hovis, a brown bakery bread marketed in Britain since the early 1990s. In Alaska I tasted the best sourdough pancakes ever, and in Baja California, the best flour tortillas.
The world of the bread baker is marked by a sense of innocence, being peaceful, creative, and life-giving. It also calls for the power of observation, scientific techniques, and a flair for combining precious flavors, all infused with a traditional respect for quality. Bread making is a skill that connects the baker with the rich heritage of bread and all the communities of the world.
Excerpted from Bread Bible by Beth Hensperger Copyright © 2004 by Beth Hensperger. Excerpted by permission.
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